Storytelling and User Experience Are on a Collision Course

Four Steps for Marketers to Integrate Storytelling with User Design

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The disciplines of storytelling and user experience design are on a collision course and it may be the best thing that's happened to brand marketers in a while.

Content and wireframes for digital experiences used to be created in silos -- a picture and a frame. But to succeed today, you need to think holistically about the entire experience you are designing for your customers.

There are two forces at work shaping this perfect storm.

First, consumer expectations have been reset. Over 68% of Americans have a smartphone. They are tapping and swiping and zooming all day. The amazing, delightful experiences we encounter every day on our phones and tablets have led to a new level set. People expect -- no, they demand -- to be delighted.

The cost of not delivering? People will simply go somewhere else. Good luck getting them to come back.

Second, engagement has become a primary business objective for brands. Marketers are slowly starting to realize that they cannot just treat customers like lab rats: Click here! Click now! We've forsaken the middle of the funnel in lieu of predictably quantifiable ROI -- but the middle of the funnel is where selling happens. Stories create emotional connections between people and brands. Emotions are what make people buy stuff. And where are they making these emotional connections? Online.

Hence, the convergence of UX and storytelling.

Empathy: The common thread

Historically, the disciplines of marketing and user experience have been at odds in many organizations. Tell some UX designers they're in advertising and they might punch you in the face.

As a designer, I've personally been straddling advertising and UX for the past 18 years and I'm here to tell you: They are both derived from the exact same principle -- empathy. We create great work based on an understanding of consumer insight. Add a dash of emotion to your empathy soup and you have the opportunity to not just anticipate people's behavior, but to shape it.

Of course, if two realms that have historically been at odds are to converge, it begs the question, "How?" Here are some practical steps you can take to inject some storytelling into your user experience.

Start by defining your goals

There are distinct approaches brands can take to integrate storytelling into digital experiences. Make sure you define what you're trying to achieve so you can leverage the right approach to achieve them.

Nest Thermostat's goal is educating consumers. It uses a long scrolling page (a technique called "parallax design") to chronicle "Life with Nest Thermostat." As potential customers move down the page, they can literally picture themselves in the story as they move from Day 1 to Day 6 and on to Day 365.

Understand currencies of value

There are two questions you must answer to develop an effective user experience: "Who is this for?" and "What do they value?"

Develop personas to help paint a picture of your customer and understand what they value. Go beyond demographics to get a sense of who they are as people. How? If you've got Nielsen data to back you up, that's great. If not, talk to some customers -- you'll be surprised what you learn.

Once you have a picture of what they value, identify "currencies" that can deliver that value. Is there a cause they might want to help? Do they want status or perks? How could their lives be easier or more fun?

At my agency, we've found that when we leverage two or more currencies in the design of an experience, we consistently deliver strong results.

Look to storytelling archetypes

There's a theory that stories fall into a series of patterns called archetypes. These are like templates for storytelling. Examples include "The Quest," where the hero overcomes numerous odds; "Comedy," where we introduce confusion which we then resolve; "Overcoming the Monster," where the hero defeats a pain point; and "Rebirth," where we show that there has to be a better way. The Nest example above is a great example of using the "Rebirth" archetype as inspiration for a story and user experience that starts at Day 1 with a better way to reduce your energy usage.

Connect the dots

Great strategy connects the dots between what you do and why you do it. Use the goals, currencies and archetypes you've explored as a toolkit. Brainstorm and come up with some ideas that allow you to deliver currencies your customer values in a way that helps you solve an objective you've identified.

These are just a couple of steps you can take to bring together the art and science of storytelling and UX. Use this notion of "storytelling" to provide more than just a frame, because stories connect with human beings on an emotional level.

Why does this matter? Because "users" may not be ready to step into your "funnel." Being intuitive only gets you so far. Remember, it's emotion that shapes behavior. Your customers' expectations from a digital experience are different today. Dare to not delight them at your own peril.

UX and storytelling have converged. I believe they will live happily ever after.

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